If you’ve had breast cancer or are going through treatment for breast cancer, we look at your options for breastfeeding.
Having breast cancer is an incredibly difficult experience for any woman to go through. But what if you want to breastfeed? What impact will breast cancer have on your experience of feeding? Here we look your options and the support available to you.
Can I breastfeed after breast cancer?
Whether you can breastfeed will really depend on the treatment you had, or are having, for breast cancer. Some women might have difficulties establishing a full breastmilk supply because of their treatment, for instance. No matter how much breastmilk you’re able to produce, it’s important to remember that every single drop of breastmilk is beneficial for your baby (American Cancer Society, 2019).
Equally, there are so many ways to feel close and bond with your baby - however you feed them. Your baby will always benefit from – and really love – skin-to-skin contact with you straight from birth. And if you bottle-feed your baby, you can take a paced bottle-feeding approach where your relationship develops with your baby and they lead the way with feeding, as they would with breastfeeding.
If you have a birth plan, it can be helpful to mention that you’ve had breast surgery in the past. It will help you get support and understanding through your care. And also mean you won’t need to explain any decisions repeatedly to different healthcare professionals.
Women on hormone therapy, such as Tamoxifen, are advised not to breastfeed while on this medication as it may pass to their baby in their breastmilk (Breast Cancer Now, 2018).
Some women might offer initial feeds of colostrum (the first milk your breasts produce) for a day or two before resuming hormone therapy. For women whose overall risk of breast cancer is lower, a break of a few months might be a possibility (Breast Cancer Now, 2018).
You can discuss your options with a relevant healthcare specialist to decide on the most appropriate length of time for a break from therapy (Breast Cancer Now, 2018).
Lumpectomy and radiotherapy
Women often find that if they’ve had a wide local excision, also known as a lumpectomy, the affected breast doesn’t produce much milk. This is particularly true if the lump was removed close to the nipple. It’s likely that more of the ducts that carry the milk within the breast and nerves may have been damaged by the surgery. Radiotherapy is likely to further affect the breast’s ability to make milk (Schnitt et al, 1984).
Breastfeeding from one breast is a possibility though, as it might be possible for women to establish a full milk supply from the breast that didn’t have the radiation treatment (Macmillan Cancer Support, 2017a).
If your baby needs to receive supplements, some women find it helpful to use an at-breast supplementer, also called a supplemental nursing system (see below), either with donor breastmilk or formula milk (Macmillan Cancer Support, 2017b).
After nipple and breast reconstruction surgery, it’s possible to breastfeed if you want to using a supplemental nursing system and giving your baby either donated breastmilk or formula milk.
A supplemental nursing system is basically a container of milk attached to a piece of flexible feeding tube. The free end of the tube is held or taped to run alongside your nipple so that your baby can take the tube and nipple together in their mouth (Pearson-Glaze, 2018). You can read more about breastfeeding with a supplemental nursing system here.
Although these devices can be a little difficult to clean and set up, women say that they find using them healing – especially if they really wanted to breastfeed their baby.
Some women might choose to have a nipple tattooed onto their reconstructed breast rather than using tissue to re-build a nipple (Breastcancer.org, 2019). It’s important to note that 3D nipple tattoos can make using a supplemental nursing system more difficult. This is because there’s no nipple for the baby to latch onto.
Breast balancing surgery
Sometimes women have surgery to match the size and shape of their reconstructed breast to their other breast (Macmillan Cancer Support, 2017b). This type of balancing surgery might affect the milk supply produced from that breast. It’s worth talking to your surgical team, clinical nurse specialist or breast-care nurse about this.
Support if you need it
Before birth, it’s worth letting your midwife or the local infant feeding coordinator know that extra support and information would be appreciated if you have had any breast surgery. You could also call one of our Breastfeeding Counsellors to talk through any of the issues discussed in this article on 0300 330 0700 (open between 8am and midnight every day).
This page was last reviewed in November 2019.
NCT supports all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Our breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. You can also find more useful articles here.
Breastfeeding after cancer treatment from Macmillan Cancer Support
Information and support with pregnancy after breast cancer
After Breast Cancer Diagnosis - supporting primary and secondary breast cancer patients make informed choices with information and up to date news on treatments, breast surgeries, consultants, hospital and useful links.
Breastfeeding after breast and nipple surgeries (BFAR) provides information and support to mothers who wish to breastfeed after breast or nipple surgery, and their friends and family.
Breast reconstruction leaflet from Breast Cancer Care
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